Evaluation of Michigan's Families First Program
Michigan's Families First Program was created in response to growing public
concern over the statewide increase in child abuse, neglect, and delinquency
cases. The Michigan Department of Social Services (MDSS) implemented the
program in 1988 as an innovative alternative to traditional protective services
treatment such as Foster Care. The program provides families in crisis -
those in which abuse, neglect, or delinquency is most likely to occur - with
a broad range of support services on an intensive, short-term basis. Families
First attempts to stabilize the family by addressing the underlying sources
of stress that often lead to neglect and/or violence. Many program services
are offered in the home, allowing caseworkers to strengthen, empower, and
preserve families, rather than protecting children by removing them from
University Associates, a Lansing-based research firm, conducted an assessment
of the Families First Program to determine its effectiveness and to compare
its cost and case outcomes with those of Foster Care placement. The evaluation
compared a group of 225 children that was participating in the Families First
Program to a similar group of 225 children receiving Foster Care services.
This study spanned five years and yielded the following results, each of
which is supported by multiple data sources.
The Families First Program is a consistent and cohesive family preservation
Families who have children at imminent risk of removal from their homes are
referred to the Families First Program by MDSS Protective Services staff.
A Families First caseworker makes contact with the family in an average of
28 hours. Over the next four to six weeks, the family receives intensive
services in areas such as parenting, financial management, transportation,
and job skills. These services are available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
To ensure the program staff can offer the level of help needed, caseworkers
are generally assigned only two families at a time.
The Families First Program has the support of MDSS Protective Services
staff, Families First Program staff, and families participating in the
Confidential surveys of referring workers, Families First staff, and
participating families revealed a high level of satisfaction with the program;
100% of referring workers said they would use Families First again in the
future; ratings of program staff members show a high degree of satisfaction
with their jobs; over 90% of program staff rated the program as effective
or extremely effective. In addition, 82% of participating families reported
behavioral changes such as improved communication, appropriate discipline,
and better care of children as a result of Families First intervention; 92%
said they were "very satisfied" (the highest possible rating) with their
overall interaction with their caseworker; and 98% said they would recommend
Families First to another family in a similar situation.
The Families First Program is effective in preserving families by enabling
children to remain with their families, thus averting out-of-home
When compared to a matched group of 225 children previously placed in Foster
Care, 225 Families First children evidenced a consistently lower out-of-home
placement rate at 3, 6, 12, 18, 24, and 30 months following intervention.
Using the MDSS management information system, out-of-home placements were
documented for each child in the matched comparison group. For all children
in the comparison, out-of-home placement rates for the Families First children
compared to Foster Care children were:
All but the 3-month comparison were statistically significant. When delinquency
and family reunification cases were removed from the analysis, the differences
were even more pronounced. The out-of-home placement rates for Families First
children compared to Foster Care children referred for abuse or neglect (186
children in each group) were:
These differences were statistically significant at all six intervals.
The Families First Program is highly cost-effective when compared with
Foster Care Services.
During a 6-month evaluation period, 626 families were referred to Families
First. According to MDSS referring workers, 96% of these families had children
who were at imminent risk of placement without Families First intervention.
If this estimate is correct, averting Foster Care placement for 96% of the
children referred to Families First over the program's six-year period (n=26,392)
could have saved the State of Michigan more than $219,343,000 for the first
year following intervention. Even if more conservative estimates of the actual
percentage of children at risk are used, the savings produced by the Families
First Program remain substantial. If Foster Care placement were prevented
for 85% of the 26,392 children by Families First, savings to the state would
amount to $185,000,000 the first year after intervention.
Results of this comprehensive evaluation of Michigan's Families First Program
substantiated a well-defined model of service delivery which was highly effective
at both protecting children and preserving families. The Family First Program
addressed a severe social problem which was costly in terms of both human
misery, and the expenditure of large amounts of public funds. Evaluative
results determined that Families First was effective at treating families
with children at risk of removal by empowering families while protecting
the safety of their children. Not only was the Families First Program effective
at attacking the severe social problem of treating families experiencing
child neglect, abuse, and delinquency, but it also saved the State of Michigan
many millions of dollars by reducing the need for Foster Care services.
Maintain Model Integrity. As the program expands, continuously assess
fidelity to the Families First model that has proven so effective.
Monitor Outcomes for Various Case Types. As other types of cases (such
as delinquency cases and family reunifications) are covered by the expanding
program, assess outcomes by type of referral to ensure that the program model
does not become weakened.
Monitor the Effectiveness of the Service Period. Evaluate the length
of the service period by assessing outcomes such as families' continued use
of community resources for support of behavioral changes, recurrence of abuse
or neglect, and removal of children from homes.
Be Vigilant to the Possibility of "Netwidening." Ensure that those
being served by the program are those most in need of services.
Conduct Continued Follow-up Using MDSS Management Information System.
Outcomes for the Families First and Foster Care children studied in this
evaluation should be monitored at six-month intervals over the next several
years to provide long-term data about the effectiveness of the two programs.
This can be accomplished using the computer program developed specifically
for this evaluation.